"At the edge of Canada, one sometimes sees a kind of animal that reminds one of a horse, with braided feet, shaggy mouth, a horn on its forehead, a tail like a wild pig, black eyes and a deer neck: it feeds in the next wilderness: the males never come to the females, except in the time when they mate, whereupon they become so wild that they not only eat animals, but also each other ...". (Quote from page 172 of the English edition). This report was written by the Dutch Protestant theologian Arnoldus Montanus in 1671. Anyone wishing to admire his monumental work under the title "De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld" (The New Unknown World), including a selection of 125 copper engravings, should bring some time with them.
In any case, the missionary, who had not left Europe himself, has written down the travel descriptions of the discoverers of America, which, as in the case of the unicorn sighting, appear almost too precise to be merely a phantasmagoria. Although the illustrations sometimes seem quite fantastic, basically all travel descriptions are extremely precise and do not sound like fictional legends. Nature and/or primitive peoples are described there quite in detail, this applies likewise to the today usual animal species, which the new world had to offer at that time and appears for us today as absolutely natural.
The Dutch painting "The Ark" from the 18th century shows quite impressively how naturally unicorns were included in the group of the usual animal breeds known to us and how naturally they should also be on the ark (picture source by clicking on the picture). Other (from today's point of view) mythical creatures were apparently not part of the painting.
Could it be, then, that Montanus has immortalized an interesting tradition here? One can argue about it and surely the evolution guardians will spontaneously disagree. Personally I think such sightings from this time are plausible. I find it particularly interesting that this supposed "fairy tale creature" is assigned a rather rough to brutal role in the travel description. Quite different from today's pink mythical creatures that decorate the children's rooms of little girls.
The following illustration of Albertus Magnus (* around 1200 in Lauingen an der Donau; † 15 November 1280 in Cologne)
In the 15th century unicorns were taken for granted alongside other known animal species. The travelogues immortalized by Montanus were no exception. Erhard Reuwich from Mainz also recorded unicorns for Bernhard von Breydenbach for his work Peregrinatio in terram sanctam from 1486. Source
Others, such as Hugo von Trimberg (ca. 1230-ca. 1313), also naturally classified the unicorn here alongside the usual forest animals; however, in a subordinate role to the lion. Link.
Playing card of a "wild woman" with the unicorn (Source - 1400-1499). Were both equally rare or merely a product of wild fantasies?
Someone on Facebook once put it this way: "I could imagine that unicorns were more of a "rare" unicorn antelope of Eurasian origin, which since then has certainly disappeared (died out).... and thus represents anything but a legend - in contrast to dinosaurs, which can be called evolutionary inventions. Not at all "unicorns", even if they have become a Semitic symbol."
Who knows, perhaps there is something true about it. I don't want to comment here on the past existence of dinosaurs, but I believe in a past time with unicorns. Even in antiquity, sightings cross borders and sometimes offer more than just symbolic approaches.
It is like with the dragons: They are said never to have existed, but they adorn numerous cities and coats of arms. Most unicorns adorn cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Central Europe. Even Julius Caesar is said to have seen one (of the unicorns) in Bavaria. Also in the coats of arms the description of the being is taken up analogously to the sightings (lion tail, goat hooves etc.). All sightings go back at least 5.000 years according to the traditions, engravings and drawings.
At the latest in the time of the Middle Ages one saw oneself in the position to differentiate even between different unicorn kinds. From the book Historiae naturalis de quadrupetibus libri - a work by John Jonston (in Polish, Jan Jonston; in Latin, Joannes Jonstonus; Szamotuły, 15. September 1603 - 1675, Legnica), a Polish scientist and doctor from the Scottish nobility. (>> Link), (>> Link)
The descriptions of Montanus are not unique. In other countries, this creature with a pointed and tortuous horn was also portrayed wild and dangerous. It is said that the older sightings were also of cloven hoofed animals with a cow's or lion's tail. Ktesias of Knidos, a Greek doctor and historian of the late 5th century B.C., who is regarded as very critical due to his adventurous traditions in this country, wants to have sighted a unicorn already in his time. Here the descriptions are similar with later ones: The head of a deer, goat hooves, a lion's tail, blue eyes and a white horn are described. He goes even further: in his opinion the horns of unicorns are excellent drinking vessels that render poisons harmless. Of course, such views are even more smiled at by today's science.
Nevertheless, the legend of the neutralization of poisons by unicorns has been stubbornly established everywhere, as can be seen here (following figure).
"The unicorn is found" or "The unicorn at the fountain". The second tapestry in the series "The Hunt of the Unicorn", from ca. 1495 -1505.
A high ornamental fountain with lion mask cones pours water into a forest stream where animals (lion and lioness, leopard, weasel, wolf, deer, pheasant, goldfinch and rabbit) have gathered to drink while a pair of ducks swim by in the stream itself.
A unicorn kneels before the viewer on the other side of the stream and dips the tip of his horn into the water (a remedy for all poisons), making the water drinkable.
Behind the bushes surrounding the fountain are a dozen hunters with long lances over their shoulders and hunting dogs. They talk and gesticulate with each other and think together how to kill the unicorn so that they can deliver it to the king and queen.
The towers of the royal castle are visible through the trees in the far distance (in the upper left corner of the tapestry).
The whole thing does not lack a certain symbolism, since the lions of the fountain as gargoyles stand for the claim to power of the then elite (as well as today), who apparently sometimes also bring "poison" into circulation in order to hunt the game (if necessary on behalf of the people). Purifying forces - as represented by the unicorn - must therefore subordinate themselves either dead or alive to this system. Of course, the symbolism of the French lilies at the well head is also remarkable.
It's like the Yeti, Bigfoot or the Yowie: The unicorn is sighted everywhere or corresponding descriptions are handed down, but no one wants to suspect a serious analogy behind it. Even in ancient China, Quilin is known as the equivalent of the western unicorn. There, too, it is said to have the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, although here it is described as less violent than in Montanus - rather as a peaceful omen. At the time of Confucius such a specimen was captured. The people saw in this being less a positive sign than a bad one and murdered it, which saddened Confucius himself very much. One of his works on this subject remained unfinished. The entire Asian region has its own names for the being, which was apparently known everywhere.
Here as tone figure from China, Northern Wei (386-534 CE)
In Christian mythology, the being has a alternate status for purity and virginity. This nimbus is still spread today in the pink world of children.
At Wikipedia we can read in which form British as well as Scottish coats of arms do not get along without unicorn:
The English version says: "Legend has it that a free unicorn was considered a very dangerous animal. Therefore the heraldic unicorn is chained, as are both unicorns in the royal coat of arms of Scotland. Leo and unicorn have been in a symbolic clinch since the English took over the former Scottish figure at the latest, as Lewis Carroll also addresses in his book "Alice Behind the Mirrors". However, the symbolic conflict between these two representatives certainly goes back much further in time.
At the latest from this point, the belief in a mere legend leaves one. In my opinion the description of the unicorn as a dangerous being is very much in line with the natural sightings.
George Orwell has written his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn. Socialism and the English Genius" during World War II expressed his view that the obsolete British class system was hindering the war effort and that Britain needed a socialist revolution to defeat Nazi Germany. So Orwell argued that being a socialist and a patriot need not contradict each other. This made "The Lion and the Unicorn" a symbol of revolution, a new kind of socialism: "democratic" "English socialism. This would be in contrast to oppressive Soviet totalitarian communism and would also be a new form of Britishism, a socialist form liberated from the empire and decadent old ruling classes. Orwell declared that the revolutionary regime could keep the royal family as a national symbol, and that the rest of the British aristocracy should be swept away.
Here Orwell makes a specific selection to the nobility and sells his thinking as "liberating" socialism. The unicorn also had to serve for this. The whole thing already sheds light on the process, which finally animated Orwell to write his famous dystopia "1984“.
In the following two exemplary buildings (picture sources with click on the picture), which are decorated by a unicorn. They are either churches or public buildings of the Anglo-American Empire.
Science and the general public insist that in the past there was a general misunderstanding or that phantasmagoria with conclusions about other animal species was used as a basis. Neither are there supposed to have been unicorns in the last few millennia, nor would his horn have any healing effect. If it had, then it would have to do here with mix-ups like with the Oryx antelope and the narwhal.
The following narwhal illustration (picture source with click on the picture) is from the 19th century.
We all know that there are unicorns - think of the narwhal and the stocky rhinos, for example. Scientists are aware, however, that in the early or middle Pleistocene there were also unicorns - the so-called Siberian unicorns - under the sign of (presumably) an exaggeratedly distant time. The creature is said to have existed between 125,000 and 2.5 million years.
Well, in the meantime, this species (the Elasmotherium sibericum) may have been dated 100 to 200,000 years before our time, when the stocky specimen of this species roamed the forests. According to more recent studies, they are believed to have died out together with the saber-toothed tiger and the woolly mammoth as a result of climate change. This new assumption has already led us to an age of 35-39,000 years. Science can/may change its mind so quickly. Although it became warmer and therefore the vegetation was more opulent, the climate is said to have overtaxed the Siberian unicorns. While rhinos and antelopes survived, the other unicorns are said not to have adapted quickly enough. In addition, the limited range, the small number of single specimens and the low reproduction number are said to have played a role.
From my point of view it has nothing to do with the classical unicorn of the above-mentioned description anyway, since it was of a completely different stature. Nevertheless, I do not doubt the traditions from antiquity that this deer-like creature existed until the Middle Ages.
It could be that it was finally eliminated in a targeted and final manner and then the wild indomitability was symbolically exploited for various claims to power.